Author: Knut Hamsun
Type of Book: Literary fiction
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s a book without a plot with an utterly unhinged protagonist. Possibly one of the most upsetting books I have ever read.
Availability: This book was originally published in 1890. My edition is from Farrar, Strauss, Giraux in 2008. You can get a copy here:
(If you have a Kindle, dig around because I saw a Kindle version going for free, though that may be because I have a Prime Membership on Amazon)
Comments: I’ve been putting off discussing this book because I don’t know where to start. Hunger really is a book without a plot – in this novel, the same thing happens every day with mild variations on action. There is no character arc because the protagonist is as vainglorious, horribly depressed, and lunatic at the beginning as he is at the end. This book frustrated me beyond belief and yet I read it through twice because I just had to do it. And as contradictory as it sounds, I hated this book the first read and loved it the second. This is all the more contradictory because even though I loved it the second time, I never want to read this book again.
This book is the literary equivalent of running your soul over a cheese grater. Over and over again. It’s hard to discuss such a book with any skill, though others have. Initially, I thought Paul Auster’s take on this book, printed in the copy I read, was wrong, but later I realized he was correct – he just interrogated the text from a different perspective. He looked at the book from an intellectual perspective and I looked at it from the perspective of someone who has gone insane and felt something akin to pain reading such lunacy.
So I am faced with a problem: how does one discuss a narrator whose highs and lows make Raskolnikov’s public behavior seem normal? How can I discuss a book wherein nothing really changes and there is virtually no character arc? I don’t know. I think all I can do is discuss the parts of this book that resonated the most with me, and even this is going to be sticky because even as I divide the book into specific elements I want to discuss, there will be significant overlap between these elements. For example, as I discuss how the protagonist cannot act in his own self-interests, lunacy caused by starvation also comes into play. In fact, it is tempting to just write the words, “Starvation in a land of plenty will make you insane” over and over until I hit a decent word count. Just bear that in mind – there is a lot of overlap when discussing the narrator’s mind and actions.
Before I begin, I need to mention that I read the edition translated by Robert Bly, widely considered to be the crappiest translation because he evidently “corrected” verb usage to eliminate mixed tenses. Mixed tenses, according to scholars of the text, were to show the disorganization of the protagonist’s mind. So my edition is actually a bit saner than the actual text. Though I sort of wish I had read a more faithful translation of the text, I suspect it is a good thing I read the less crazy version. As it was, the narrator’s mind was an utter vexation.
Hunger‘s narrator is trying to write in a very Dostoyevskian manner. He may be an excellent writer but his topics, “Crimes of the Future” or “Freedom of the Will” lean toward him being a self-impressed hack. His grand ideas are constrained by his grinding poverty and his mental disorganization. The novel is divided into four parts and begins with him leaving a boarding house (though he could have stayed had he just approached the problem with logic and patience) and living rough. The second part of the novel concerns his attempts to live in a borrowed shack as he tries to write. In the third part, he meets a woman who slowly realizes he is not what she thought he was and the romance is dashed. The fourth section of the novel takes place mostly in a very low boarding house where the narrator, terrified of the cold and of living rough again, hangs onto a roof over his head in a manner so servile and cringing it almost killed me to read it. He finally goes to enlist as a crew member on a ship, which some take as him finally moving on from his despair, but I read as suicide, an interpretation I will, of course, explain. Until then, I will just divide this discussion up into relevant chunks and hope that at the end I have given the reader a good idea of the protagonist and the struggles he faces as he starves nearly to death in a world that often notices him too well or does not notice him at all.